Attorney Cathy M. Kaplan ’77 has cultivated a remarkable and varied legal career that illustrates the importance of anticipating change
Sitting at a table on the 23rd floor of Sidley Austin’s office in midtown Manhattan, Cathy M. Kaplan ’77, a longtime partner at the firm who specializes in global finance and asset-backed securitization, is discussing her studies at Columbia Law School. In the midst of various recollections, Kaplan shifts gears and wonders aloud about the advice she would give to current Law School students in light of her career trajectory. She quickly hits on a theme: Be flexible and open to developments. “Careers change, markets change,” says Kaplan, her red hair and vivid blue eyes presenting a sharp contrast to the gray skyline behind her. “Nobody’s practice remains static. You have to take charge of your own career.”
Soon after making the assertion, Kaplan recalls the guidance she received prior to embarking on her own legal career. The daughter of two lawyers, she attended Yale as one of a small number of women in her graduating class. While at Columbia Law School, the New York City native worked with Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 as part of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU before pursuing corporate law.
Early in her career, Kaplan’s interest in corporate law evolved, and she began specializing in municipal financing. Her work spanned a wide range of projects: She helped secure financing for everything from sewer projects in a small North Carolina town to the construction of a wing of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “Municipal financing was really satisfying,” says Kaplan. “I liked the bricks and mortar part of it, seeing things being built, and working with small towns to raise money.”
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act, which increased taxation on municipal bonds and effectively reshaped the industry. Kaplan took the change as a chance to explore the area of securitization, a then-nascent field involving the consolidation, repackaging, and resale of loans in the form of securities. Now, more than two decades and one global economic crisis later, the conversation surrounding the field has risen to a fever pitch, and Kaplan’s skills are more needed than ever.
Bolstered by her wide-ranging experience in securities law, Kaplan remains a steady voice in the sea of chatter. “The growing realization that the economy and financial structures will never be what they were is a slow and painful process,” she says.
Kaplan recently spent two years analyzing a large European bank’s existing deals in order to anticipate how they would fare under new U.S. and European regulations. “There would have never been a project like this five years ago,” she adds. “All the regulations have changed. The Dodd-Frank Act sets the stage for all the rules.”
Kaplan, who is also an avid art collector and supporter of the arts, makes a priority of staying connected to a broad range of practice areas, and she does so by building a foundation of trust with other lawyers. “I have an intense reliance on my colleagues,” she says. “The number one way to develop business is to have other lawyers respect you so they’ll call and ask your opinion when issues come up.”
During the course of more than three decades in the legal profession, Kaplan has proven to be a consistent and highly regarded source of expertise. And despite the oscillation in her fields of specialty, and in the markets, she says, there are some elements of her job that will never change. “The key thing a lawyer has to do is listen,” Kaplan notes. “With clients, you have to look, step back, and determine what the client is trying to accomplish and how you can make that happen.”